Terminology of homosexuality  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The terminology of homosexuality has been a contentious issue since the emergence of LGBT social movements in the mid-19th century. As with racial terms within the United States – such as negro, black, colored, and African American – the choice of terms regarding sexual orientation may imply a certain political outlook, and different terms have been preferred at different times and in different places. In the English language, some terms in widespread use have been sodomite, pederast, Sapphic, Uranian, homophile, lesbian, gay, queer, LGBT, Two-Spirit, and same-sex attracted. Some of these words are specific to women, some to men, and some can be used of either; this too changes over time.

Not all of the terms that have been used to describe same-sex sexuality are synonyms for the modern term homosexuality. The word homosexual itself had different connotations for those who used it 100 years ago to what it does today; Anna Rüling, one of the first women to publicly defend gay rights, considered gay people a third gender, different from both men and women. Terms such as gynephilia and androphilia have tried to simplify the language of sexual orientation by making no claim about the individual's own gender identity.

In addition to the stigma of social disadvantage, the terminology of homosexuality has been influenced by taboos around sex in general, producing a number of euphemisms; someone may be described as "that way", "a bit funny", "on the bus", "batting for the other team", "a friend of Dorothy", or "wearing comfortable shoes" (for women), although such euphemisms are becoming less common as homosexuality becomes more visible. Within the LGBT (gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender) community, complex vocabularies for a range of topics have developed (see gay slang). The most established, sometimes known as cants, include Polari in Britain, Swardspeak in the Philippines, Bahasa gay in Indonesia and Kaliardá in Greece.


History of homosexual terminology

Early history

Poststructuralist theorist Michel Foucault has argued that homosexual and heterosexual identities didn't emerge until the 19th century; before that time terms described practices and not identity. Foucault cites Westphal's famous article "Die Konträre Sexualempfindung" (On contrary sexual sensations) of 1870 on as the "date of birth" of the categorization of the homosexual (Foucault 1976).

In his Symposium. the ancient Greek philosopher Plato described (through the character of the profane comedian Aristophanes) three sexual orientations, and provided explanations for their existence using an invented creation myth. Aristophanes' fable is only one of many perspectives on love in the Symposium, and should not be considered identical with Plato's own ideas. Most of the Symposium's speeches are intended to be flawed in different ways, with the wise Socrates coming in at the end to correct their errors.


Although this term refers to a specific sex act between women today, in the past it was commonly used to describe female-female sexual love in general, and women who had sex with women were called Tribads or Tribades. As author Rictor Norton explains:

The tribas, lesbian, from Greek tribein, to rub (i.e. rubbing the pudenda together, or clitoris upon pubic bone, etc.), appears in Greek and Latin satires from the late first century. The tribade was the most common (vulgar) lesbian in European texts for many centuries. ‘Tribade’ occurs in English texts from at least as early as 1601 to at least as late as the mid-nineteenth century before it became self-consciously old-fashioned – it was in current use for nearly three centuries.

Fricatrice, a synonym for tribade that also refers to rubbing but has a Latin rather than a Greek root, appeared in English as early as 1605 (in Ben Jonson's Volpone). Its usage suggests that it was more colloquial and more pejorative than tribade. Variants include the Latinized confricatrice and English rubster.


Though sodomy has been used to refer to a range of homosexual and heterosexual "unnatural acts", the term sodomite usually refers to a homosexual male. The term is derived from the Biblical tale of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Christian churches have referred to the crimen sodomitae (crime of the Sodomites) for centuries; the modern association with homosexuality can be found as early as AD 96 in the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus. Jerome in the early 5th century uses the forms Sodoman, in Sodomis, Sodomorum, Sodomæ, Sodomitæ (Hallam 1993). The modern German word Sodomie and the Norwegian sodomi refer to bestiality.


Lesbian writer Emma Donoghue found that the term lesbian (with its modern meaning) was in use in the English language from at least the 17th century. A 1732 book by William King, The Toast, uses "lesbian loves" and "tribadism" interchangeably : "she loved Women in the same Manner as Men love them; she was a Tribad".


Named after the Greek poet Sappho who lived on Lesbos Island and wrote love poems to women, this term has been in use since at least the 18th century, with the connotation of lesbian. In 1773, a London magazine described sex between women as "Sapphic passion". The adjective form Sapphic is still commonly used in the English language.


Today, pederasty refers to male attraction towards boys, or the cultural institutions that support such relations, as in ancient Greece. However, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the term usually referred to male homosexuality in general. A pederast was also the active partner in anal sex, whether with a male or a female partner.


Karl Heinrich Ulrichs invented the term Urning in Germany in the 1860s for a male-bodied person with a female psyche, who is sexually attracted to men and not women. He expanded this system to cover a range of sexual appetites and gender variance in both males and females.


The word homosexual translates literally as "of the same sex", being a hybrid of the Greek prefix homo- meaning "same" (as distinguished from the Latin root homo meaning human) and the Latin root sex meaning "sex". In Sanskrit homosexual is called somo-kaami or sama-kaami. In Sanskrit language, the prefix somo- means "same" and Kaami means "who desires the same sex".

The first known appearance of the term homosexual in print is found in a 1869 German pamphlet 143 des Preussischen Strafgesetzbuchs und seine Aufrechterhaltung als 152 des Entwurfs eines Strafgesetzbuchs für den Norddeutschen Bund ("Paragraph 143 of the Prussian Penal Code and Its Maintenance as Paragraph 152 of the Draft of a Penal Code for the North German Confederation"). The pamphlet was written by Karl-Maria Kertbeny, but published anonymously. The pamphlet advocated the repeal of Prussia's sodomy laws (Bullough et al. ed. (1996)). Kertbeny had previously used the word in a private letter written in 1868 to Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. Kertbeny used Homosexualität in place of Ulrichs's Urningtum; Homosexualisten instead of Urninge, and Homosexualistinnen instead of Urninden.

The first known use of homosexual in English is in Charles Gilbert Chaddock's 1895 translation of Richard von Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis, a study on sexual practices. The term was popularized by the 1906 Harden-Eulenburg Affair.

Although some early writers used the adjective homosexual to refer to any single-gender context (such as an all-girls' school), today the term implies a sexual aspect. The term homosocial is now used to describe single-sex contexts that are not specifically sexual.

The colloquial abbreviation "homo" for "homosexual" is a coinage of the interbellum period, first recorded as a noun in 1929, and as an adjective in 1933. It is today often considered a "derogatory epithet".

Homogenic love

Used by Edward Carpenter in Homogenic Love: and its Place in a Free Society, 1894.

Other late 19th and early 20th century sexological terms

  • Antipathic sexual instinct (used by Richard von Krafft-Ebing in "Psychopathia Sexualis, with Special Reference to the Antipathic Sexual Instinct: A Medico-Forensic Study", 1886).
  • Sexual inversion (used by Krafft-Ebing and also Havelock Ellis and John Addington Symonds in "Sexual Inversion", 1897. Popularised by Radclyffe Hall's use of it in her novel The Well of Loneliness.)
  • Psychosexual hermaphroditism (used by Krafft-Ebing and later Ellis to mean bisexuality, as opposed to complete inversion (exclusive homosexuality). Freud uses the term in "Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality" (1905) to refer to male homosexuality.)
  • The intermediate sex (used by Edward Carpenter in "The Intermediate Sex", 1908)
  • Similisexualism or similsexualism (used by Edward Irenaeus Prime-Stevenson [writing as Xavier Mayne] in "The Intersexes: A History of Similisexualism as a Problem in Social Life", 1908)
  • Third gender
  • Intersexuality (used around 1900 as a synonym for "inversion"; the term now has a different meaning — see intersexuality)
  • Hijra

These terms describe individuals for whom the sex of the psyche is the opposite of that of the genitals (as with Ulrich's Urnings). The female invert is therefore masculine and the male invert is feminine. Traits of inversion include homosexual erotic attraction, temperament, and behavior; sometimes inversion can affect career choice and even anatomic structure. Krafft-Ebing, drawing on the earlier writings of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, described male inverts with varying degrees of effeminacy, from Effemination in which a man has a distinctly feminine demeanor, to Androgyny in which a man is so effeminate that he can even has feminine bodily characteristics like rounded hips.


Popular in the 1950s and 1960s (and still in occasional use today, particularly in writing by Anglican clergy), the term homophile was an attempt to avoid the clinical implications of sexual pathology found with the word homosexual, emphasizing love (-phile) instead.


In the late twentieth century, this word was coined by Christian groups opposed to homosexuality. In contrast to homophile, the word focuses solely on the sexual acts which some churches believe to be sinful, side-stepping the associated issues of romantic or family love, community, and personal identity. The term's use remains confined mostly to anti-gay religious groups, but it is occasionally seen in the writings of their opponents, such as DignityUSA.

Androtrop and Gynäkotropin

From 1946 to 1966, homosexual activist Kurt Hiller published a number of poems and articles in Swiss journal Der Kreis ("The Circle"). In one of them he joined the ongoing debate on terminology by suggesting the terms Androtrop and Gynäkotropin for male and female homosexuals, respectively. Hiller coined these German terms from the Greek words tropos (turning [to]) combined with "andro-" (male) and "gynaiko-" (female), with the addition of the German feminine ending "in". Neither term was adopted, though the first briefly gained some favor.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Terminology of homosexuality" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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